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Soccer Thugs

Free-kicking Franklin Foer says that globalization hasn’t stamped out tribalism.

By 7.22.04

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How Soccer Explains the World
by Franklin Foer
(HarperCollins, 272 pages, $24.95)

Kofi Annan should study soccer. At least that's what Franklin Foer, author of the new book, How Soccer Explains the World, would argue. The work's ten chapters read like mini-biographies, their details enlivening and even humanizing the soccer characters they describe. For instance, Foer relates his encounter with "Dummy," a middle-aged Glasgow Rangers fan who for 16 weekends a year travels with friends to watch his team play and contribute to the rabid chants from the crowd. His new friend "makes a big point of establishing his hard man bona fides." He shows Foer "two fresh knife scars on his face from pub brawls over money owed to him -- 'just from the last six months.'"

In telling such stories Foer tries to do more than entertain: He attempts to show that even though soccer players move around the world more, local club rivalries have grown more intense. That fact, Foer says, illustrates a greater social truth: Interacting with other cultures doesn't produce a cultural monolith -- often the effect is just the opposite.

The book relates Foer's view of globalization, in his hands an ambiguous term that relates to greater freedom of movement and more advanced broadcast technology, including the Internet and satellite television. For soccer, globalization means that more athletes now play for teams outside their home country and even home continent. Foer rightly discerns that while globalization does produce some benefits, technology hasn't eliminated age-old hatreds, the depth of which go much deeper than American baseball rivalries, to a place where tribal affinities trump civilized behavior.

To test this theory Foer did some dangerous investigating -- he took eight months off from the New Republic to go watch actual soccer matches, and thereby put himself in harm's way. Take Serbia's Red Star team in Belgrade. The Red Star club has organized gangs like the "Ultra Bad Boys" with offices in the team's stadium. In a match against a rival team, fans brought rocks and acid to use in the inevitable brawl -- the rocks to pound people with, the acid to eat through the fences separating one team's fans from the other's. Players from the visiting team had to be airlifted out of the stadium.

Another high-intensity rivalry resides in the U.K., between Scottish Rangers fans and Irish Celtic fans. At the games Scottish fans sing "We're up to our knees in Fenian (Irish) blood!" while Irish fans respond with ballads about the IRA blowing things up. Fans who want to avoid conflict have to studiously avoid wearing orange or green.

Foer writes some clubs with more irenic fans have another problem: high-level corruption. A few soccer club presidents use their positions for their own advantage, through graft or outright theft. For example, the head of Rio's Vasco de Gama club, Eurico Miranda, recently filched about $124,000 of team money for his federal congress reelection campaign. The money was part of a $34 million loan from NationsBank that was supposed to last the team 100 years. It lasted two.

In the third chapter, Foer makes an excellent point about Old World reactions to Jews who play on European soccer teams. Unlike, say, Sandy Koufax, the players aren't celebrated as part of the wider cultures. Rather, "even when Europeans identify with [Jewish players] they confirm that the Jews are foreigners, not like themselves." Europeans tend to look at Jewish soccer players as Jews and not as Europeans, a distinction most wouldn't make with other ethic groups.

Every once in a while, as I was navigating the detail-rich chapters, I had to back up and think, "What is this book about again?" Although Foer's descriptive ability allows him to avoid too much editorializing and thus turning off his audience, he could have made his point a little less indirectly. But overall his take on globalization rings true: Certain human impulses prove remarkably resistant to change.

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